Coaches are judged by wins, sure. But even the winningest often find themselves at the mercy of others. In college, it’s namely athletic directors and boosters. Just look at Rick Barnes, who was fired from his post as basketball coach at Texas last week, despite taking the Longhorns to the NCAA Tournament in 16 of his 17 seasons in Austin. Tellingly, he had a new job at Tennessee less than 72 hours later.
Point being, the ultimate goal of a coach is longevity, the ability to dictate his or her own terms and, particularly, the sole right to decide when it’s time to move on to greener pastures. There isn’t necessarily a blueprint for achieving that level of job security; national championships may not even do the trick. Success certainly helps, but true omnipotence is as much about wins and losses as it is cultivating an aura. And that’s rare.
Which is why this weekend’s Final Four finds itself in rather unique standing. All four coaches – Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo – are institutions at their universities. Their average tenure at their current schools is nearly 19 seasons (Calipari’s 6 seasons at UK brings the number down). Coach K’s been scowling on the sidelines in Durham for 35 years now; the last 15 of which have taken place on the court named in his honor. Michigan State’s Izzo has logged 20 campaigns as the leader of the Spartans; the MSU student section already bears his name, and it seems a mere formality that the hardwood inside the Breslin Center will one day, too. Ryan’s been at Wisconsin for 14 seasons, and made the tournament in every one of them. Coach Cal has led the Wildcats to a national championship, four Final Four appearances in five seasons and, in case you hadn’t heard, is a pretty ace recruiter, too.
Collectively, they form college basketball’s Mount Rushmore of active coaches (Louisville’s Rick Pitino should be up there, too, but since we all know there are only four spots on Mount Rushmore, he loses out.) Krzyzewski is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. The other three will be soon: Calipari could get in on Monday.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to be in a class with the people that are there,” Izzo said.
For the second straight year, Calipari and Ryan will face off in the national semifinals. Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in college basketball history, will coach in his 12th Final Four. And Izzo, the man with the most Final Fours in the 2000s, will coach in his seventh. Up until last year, Izzo had taken each of his four-year players to at least one Final Four. A loss to eventual national champion Connecticut in last year’s Elite 8 ended what was then the greatest active streak in not just the coaching profession, but probably all of sports.
That’s a just snapshot, not the full picture. But it gives reason to argue this will be the best-coached Final Four in history. It’s probably why, earlier this week, a 20-minute Q&A with all four men turned rather quickly into one giant lovefest (Krzyzewski on Izzo: “[MSU’s] going to show up with a toughness and an unselfishness of play – that’s who Tom is.” Izzo on Calipari: “He doesn’t get enough credit for his coaching.” Calipari on Ryan: “You’re talking about one of those guys who walked through the ranks and has done it anywhere he has been.”)
At this point, sports are as much a part of the pop-culture lexicon as Pepsi, and as such, these four men are brands – thanks to increased television coverage, endorsement deals and 24-hour sports networks. Walking a block with any of the four in a major city might take a while. Call them A-list celebrities? Some might agree. Others may call it a stretch. But their fame compares to that of actors, musicians and at least a second-tier Kardashian (Kourtney?)
These four men are the faces of major universities. They’re also the faces of college basketball. And their presence at this year’s Final Four could help college basketball save face. The game has been called into question. People say it’s plodding. Scoring is down. Defense is up. It caused the NCAA to experiment with a 30-second shot clock in this year’s NIT, the consolation tournament for those teams not selected to play in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s all by people throwing this out there,” Ryan said of the bad press. “It’s a way to talk about college basketball that gets talk shows going.”
Not only are the talking heads squawking, people are too. Coaches like Krzyzewski, Calipari, Ryan and Izzo may be the only ones to get them to shut up. The aesthetics of a game coached by any of them are vastly than anything else in the sport. The NCAA couldn’t have ended up with a better final weekend if they had hired a casting director. Ratings are certain to be up for this year’s Final Four – in part to witness Kentucky’s quest for perfection. But also to see these four men match wits.
Because fans love icons. These days, we are quick to throw that word around, but in the cases of Krzyzewski, Ryan, Calipari and Izzo, it fits. Many have attempted to duplicate their methods, few have succeeded. Each year coaches are fired. These four remain. And they will continue to do so until they’re ready to pack it up and move on to whatever challenge remains. It’s enough to give even the most fervent of competitors pause – like Izzo, when asked on Monday’s conference call what makes Krzyzewski, the man he’ll face off against on Saturday, so great:
“There’s so many things, to be very honest with you,” he laughed. “Not that I should idolize my opponent.”